Five Years Later, Tunisians Take to the Streets Again

In the new, democratic Tunisia, people are protesting again — and for the same reason as before.

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This month Tunisians observed the five-year anniversary of the popular uprisings that brought down Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s long-time dictator. But the citizens of this young democracy don’t seem to be in a celebratory mood. Instead, the nation is on edge after an eruption of protest against unemployment, poverty, and government indifference in several long-marginalized regions of the country.

The unrest began after a young man in the impoverished town of Kasserine climbed a telephone pole and electrocuted himself in despair. He had discovered that his name had been left off a list of potential Ministry of Education employees published by the local government.

If this story sounds familiar, there’s a good reason why. In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor, set himself ablaze after local officials harassed him for selling fruit from a cart. The incident catalyzed the public’s outrage at the social injustices and lack of opportunities in his impoverished hometown of Sidi Bouzid. The protests that began there were the spark that lit the fires of revolution.

The young man who killed himself this week, Ridha Yahaoui, had also long been incensed by the lack of opportunities in his own hometown. “He was in a sit-in in 2014 with a group of other unemployed young men,” his heartbroken father told a local radio station. “Every time someone from the government visited Kasserine, he’d show up and demand employment opportunities. We heard so many promises. We expected solutions. But nothing.”

“When I got to the hospital to see him, he was in a bad shape,” said Yahaoui’s father, whose name was not given. “He died a few minutes later. Today, I demand the rights of my son and everyone else in Kasserine,” he said, choking on his tears. His call has been heard. The citizens of the town soon took to the streets in support of his son and others like him, accusing the local deputy governor of manipulating the employment list and playing favors. These demands for social justice recall similar moments in December 2010 and January 2011, when tens of thousands of Tunisians demanded the right to employment, dignity and freedom.

Some of this week’s protests turned violent. Several government buildings were attacked by protesters, who threw Molotov cocktails and burned tires. Others blocked roads and railways. Security agents used tear gas to disperse the protesters, and on Tuesday night the Interior Ministry announced a curfew. A policeman was killed in a car accident while trying to disperse the angry crowds.

On Wednesday, the protests spread to Kairouan and Siliana, and other smaller towns near Kasserine. Young students also took to the streets of Tunis, chanting in support of the protests and carrying signs that demanded “employment, freedom, national dignity” and proclaimed “solidarity with Kasserine.”

“These protests are legitimate and an evidence that Tunisia respects its constitution,” said President Beji Caid Essebsi on Wednesday. “We understand these movements, but they should not be exaggerated.” The fact that he reacted to the protests at all marked a change from the bad old days of 2010, when officials initially refused to acknowledge any public discontent. Even so, Essebsi’s remarks did little to mollify the current protesters. 

In fear that the protests could spread nationwide, cabinet members held an urgent meeting with the region’s representatives in parliament to try to figure out a solution to the crisis. According to Khaled Chawkat, a government spokesperson, 5,000 new public sector jobs will be made available to citizens of disadvantaged regions such as Kasserine. He also promised hundreds of small government-sponsored projects and other job-creating incentives to the region’s unemployed youth, in addition to infrastructure improvements and other development projects throughout Tunisia’s traditionally underdeveloped regions.

“We don’t want these protests to become an occasion for terrorists who aim at harming the democratic Tunisian model,” he added.

On January 6, Prime Minister Habib Essid announced a long-anticipated cabinet reshuffle. But his appointments were heavily criticized as merely political, with posts going to his allies in the government instead of qualified, independent professionals.

Today, our youth are losing hope. There’s no employment, no development. Only marginalization. They tried sit-ins and hunger strikes, but that didn’t work. We should hold ourselves responsible for what’s happening in Kasserine,” said leftist opposition parliament member Haykel Belgacem.

The fact that the government has reacted at all shows how much things have changed since Ben Ali. But Tunisia’s disadvantaged regions shouldn’t have to rely on suicides and protests to get the attention of decision-makers. Promoting economic development in these regions should already be a government priority — not a topic that’s only addressed during a crisis.

Admittedly, change takes time. But Tunisia’s unemployed young people look like they’re running out of patience even as politicians in the bicker over internal conflicts and their narrow political interests. And if the people’s grievances — the same ones that brought down the last government — are not addressed, there’s no telling where this could lead.

In the photo, protesters clash with security forces in the central Tunisian town of Kasserine on January 21, 2016.

Photo credit: MOHAMED KHALIL/AFP/Getty Images

Farah Samti is a journalist based in Tunis, Tunisia. She has been covering Tunisia's transition since 2011. She has also been published in the New York Times.